The end of the
world not the destruction of the material
The special topic which we propose to consider in this discourse is central to the whole subject of the Second Coming. It is the point of view from which all the facts and principles relating to it must be regarded and their genuine meaning determined. Any misconception of what is meant by "the end of the world" will enter into and modify our understanding of the signs of this grand event, and bias all our conclusions concerning their meaning. If we do not clearly understand what is meant by "world," we shall be reasoning about an unknown quantity, we shall have no true objective, and the facts we use will have no pertinence. We may construct ingenious theories, which, having no basis in universal principles, will give place to others more ingenious and equally baseless, as children build houses of cards for the pleasure of demolishing them and renewing the structure.
It is of essential importance, therefore, to a true understanding of the subject that we know what it is, what our Lord specifically meant by the words He used. If by "world" He meant the material planet we inhabit, and by "end" the annihilation of it, as many believe He did, then we have a definite subject distinctly before us, and we can weigh all the facts in the balances of this event, and direct our reasonings to it as to their proper center.
But if He meant a state of human society, either civil or ecclesiastical, natural or spiritual, the bearing of all our facts, the meaning of our signs, and the method of our reasonings must be wholly changed. We seek an entirely different goal, - we are thinking of another world, to whose laws we must conform, and by whose principles every sign must be interpreted, and in whose balances every fact must be weighed. Let us, then, do the best in our power to understand what world our Lord meant whose end He predicted.
There are many kinds and degrees of worlds. There is the animate, and the inanimate world; the world of mind, of thought, and of affection; there is a civil, a moral, a material, and a spiritual world. Was it this material planet to which our Lord referred? or was it a world of mind, of thought, and affection, - a special form and degree of understanding spiritual truth, and, consequently, a distinct and peculiar quality of human character and life as the result of it? We must gain admittance for our thought into the right world.
It is a singular fact, a knowledge of which will greatly assist us in determining this question, that aiõn, the word the apostles used, and which is translated "world," does not mean the earth or any material body. " It is very remarkable," says a modern commentator, "that the word which means world, or the earth, in Greek is never used where what is supposed to be the end of the world is described." It is remarkable. I do not know of an instance where a preconceived doctrine has so fully taken possession of the minds of translators that they could not see the true meaning of the original word, when it was so plain that it seems quite impossible to misunderstand it.
The Greek word aiõn, translated " world," is used more than a hundred times in the New Testament. It is translated world about forty times. The other sixty instances in which the word occurs are rendered by " ever," "evermore," " never," "for ever
and ever." Aionios, the adjective derived from it, which occurs some seventy times, is (with three exceptions, where it is rendered " world") translated indiscriminately " eternal" and "everlasting." Everyone can see that such a variety in rendering the same word - giving it at one time the meaning of a material earth; at another, a period of time; at another, eternity - must cause great obscurity, and difficulty in understanding its true import. The absurdity becomes still greater when it is known that neither aiõn nor aionios has any primary and direct reference to time. The true meaning of aiõn is age, the special state or condition which characterizes the life of a people. It can also be applied to material things, and to natural or spiritual beings, but in all cases it means their state or condition.
As the precise meaning of this word has such an important bearing upon the whole subject we are considering, it is worthy of full and explicit illustration. There is an abundance of the highest authority for the fact that aiõn is the equivalent of "age." Let us, then, direct our attention to the meaning of "age." Its essential meaning is the state or condition of the subject to which it relates. It is used in this sense,
1. In relation to the earth itself. The various states the material substances which compose the earth have passed through are called ages. Geologists speak of the Azoic age, by which they do not mean any definite period of time, but a condition of the earth devoid of all life; the Palaeozoic age, which is the state of the earth when life first appeared; the absence or the presence of life being the special characteristic of these ages.
2. It. is used to designate the physical, social, civil, moral, and spiritual condition of the inhabitants of the world, in a great variety of particulars. We speak of the flint age, meaning the condition of men when the use of implements made of flint was a marked quality of their industrial and civil life. We [speak of] the age of steam, of railroads, a mechanical and a scientific age, to designate the peculiarities of our time in regard to locomotion, and the employment of material forces to do our work. Flint and human muscles, steel and the steam-engine, are such peculiar and notable characteristics of human intelligence that they appropriately designate eras in man's progress from a savage to a civilized and an enlightened state. The dark ages is a well-known period in … history, which describes humankind’s spiritual ignorance and superstition. The age of chivalry was characterized by a peculiar mode of warfare, and the social condition which grew out of it. We speak of enlightened, ignorant, barbarous, and war-like ages, and many more. In none of these instances does age mean the material world, nor does it designate a definite period of time. It refers solely to the state of the people designated by the descriptive word attached to it. Such ages, it is true, occur in time, they have their beginning and end, and in this way they may come to mean a period of time. It is, however, a merely inferential one. They cannot be used to measure time, but must themselves be measured by it.
3. In the Sacred Scriptures the word of which age is the equivalent, is employed to designate the spiritual condition of men. When regarded from a spiritual point of view, it means an age, generation, or dispensation of spiritual truth. The disciples did not mean to ask the Lord about the end of the material world. They evidently had no such thought in their minds. They meant the end of the civil or ecclesiastical polity of the Jewish people, which was to be superseded, as they supposed, by the personal reign of the Lord, when He should establish His kingdom at Jerusalem, and make them the sharers of His power and glory. They had no idea that the earth was to be destroyed. If such a thought had been in their minds, they would have used another word, for aiõn is never used in the New Testament as the name of a material world.
An examination of its usage in the Word may give us still further help in gaining a true and definite conception of its meaning. It is found in four different forms, - two in the singular and two in the plural number. In the first and the most common form, its relation to the words connected with it is expressed by the English of or in, as in the passage we are considering, and many others. In these cases it is generally translated world, as" the end of the world," "the cares of this world," "the children of this world," " the ends of the world," "the gods of this world," " rich in this world," and "wise in this world."
In the second form, in the singular number, it has a different relation to the other words in the sentence, - a relation which is usually expressed by into, for, and during, in the sense of for, - as "for the summer," "for the year," meaning during the summer, the year. It is usually translated "for." The original word involves motion into, and through, where the subject admits of it. It is evident that it would not do to render aiõn by "world" in such instances. It would be nonsense or falsehood to say, Thine be the power and glory "for the worlds;" he that eateth this bread shall live "for the world; "I will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you, "for the world;" Christ abideth with you "for the world," or " during the world." Consequently, in such cases aiõn is translated "ever," which is no nearer the meaning than world in the former case.
In the plural number the translation is usually "forever." Sometimes the word is repeated, and then the rendering is "for ever and ever." If the first meaning was adhered to it would read, "Yesterday, today, and for worlds," to whom be glory "for worlds of worlds," behold, I am alive "for worlds of worlds," tormented day and night "for worlds of worlds," and so on, in the many cases where this word occurs.
The true meaning of the word is "age;" and if it was so translated, and by age we understood a dispensation of Divine truth, or a state of society formed by such truth, we should have a correct idea of what the Lord intended to express, - we should have the genuine spiritual truth. A few examples will show this. We should have the end, the cares, the children, the princes, the beginning of the, or this, age, this dispensation. Instead of "forever" and " for ever and ever," we should have a spiritual and universal idea, with no reference to space and time. The passages would read, " Thine be the power and glory for ages;" " yesterday, today, and for ages;" "He shall reign 'for ages of ages';" "worship Him that liveth for ages of ages."' By this rendering we are not limited by the material world, by time and space, and we escape the multitude of difficulties which beset a merely natural interpretation. An age can come to an end, and the world and the material universe still remain to be the birthplace of human beings and the home of their infancy. The Lord can carry into effect His purposes of love and mercy through ages of ages, in every state of our spiritual progress, from the lowest natural age to the highest spiritual age, as He has carried the earth through all its geological ages, from its primeval fiery or aqueous condition to its present state.
With this idea of the meaning of aiõn we are freed from the absurdity of looking for the end of this material world; our attention can be turned in a higher direction. The Lord's coming will not be to the material earth, but to the spiritual condition of people, - to the understanding and to the affections. The signs of His coming will not be physical commotions of the earth and natural movements among us, but commotions and changes in our spiritual state of life. The natural interpretation. of the Scriptures relating to this subject has dragged the meaning down and buried it in the earth. The spiritual raises it up again, clears away the clouds of sense, and gives us a new and higher point of view, from which all the predictions relating to the Second Coming and all the descriptions of it are seen in true and rational light. We are now in a favorable position to understand what age or what world has come to an end.
Here it may be well to state a law of the Divine order in the progress of the human race, and, indeed, of all progress. The ascent from the lowest to the highest forms of the creation, either taken as a whole, or in the individual objects and creatures which compose it, is not by a steady and regular rise, as on an inclined plane. It is by steps from one degree or story to another. The plant is not a more excellent mineral, an animal is not a perfected plant, and humankind is not an animal in finer form. It may be true that we cannot draw the line where one age ceases and the other begins because they are so intimately related. But the excellence of an age or kingdom of nature does not increase in the direction of the one which rises out of it, but in an opposite one. The diamond, ruby, and emerald, which are the perfection of mineral forms, are less like a plant than even the dust of the earth. The horse, the sheep, and the ox do not approach man in external form so near as the monkey, and. yet they are the most useful and distinctly animal in their nature.
The same law is seen in the formation of liquids and solids from gases. Water is not a more excellent gas than oxygen and hydrogen, but a substance entirely distinct from either. In the composition of human nature, the soul is not a more excellent material body, though it may have the same form and organization. It is entirely distinct from it in all the principles of its being and the modes of its action. It cannot be sustained by the same food; it cannot be developed by the same kind of culture; it is not bounded by the same limits. Indeed, though closely allied to the material body and dwelling within it, it occupies a world of its own, which is not subject to physical laws, and which transcends all material limitations. Thus there are worlds within worlds, each distinct from the other in nature, modes of action, and laws of development.
Age succeeds age in a regular ascent, or descent, according to the direction of the movement. In the material universe there was first a descent from the higher to the lower forms of matter, from the primary and purest material substance, through ethers, gases, fluids, to minerals. When a solid basis was reached, the ascent advanced from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to human beings.
Human beings contains in them all the stories of descent and ascent; they form a Jacob's ladder between earth and heaven. Consequently they pass through all the ages, or distinct forms and modes of being, both as an individual and as a race, which exist in the whole material universe. They are a microcosm, and there lie enfolded in their material and spiritual natures all the forms, substances, and modes of action which exist in the macrocosm. In their descent from primeval innocence and wisdom, they have passed through all the distinct ages or states of spiritual and moral excellence to the lowest. This descent was not like that of an inclined plane; it was by distinct steps, or ages, during each one of which a quality of character and a principle of truth, or error, distinct from those which preceded and followed it, was worked out to its legitimate results. When the end had been reached, and its special principles consummated, a new age succeeded.
The human race has passed through four such ages, or worlds, in its descent from the heights of innocence and wisdom to the lowest deeps of error, sin, and shame. This state was reached when our Lord came into the world by taking upon himself man's fallen nature. This is the reason why it is so often called, in the prophetic language, "the last days," "the last times," "the end."
As every good age is destroyed by the falsification of the truths and the corruption of the corresponding affections which constituted it, and every evil age, by carrying out its false principles to their logical consequences, its end is always described as taking place in darkness and affliction. As a new age always succeeds the one which has passed away, which is formed and characterized by new principles, the truths which constitute them are called a coming of the Lord, either to create or to destroy. There are, therefore, two aspects of the coming, one from the night of the age which is ended, the other from the light of the new one which is dawning. Consequently we find many descriptions of the event from both points of view. " Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?" (Amos v. 20.) 11 For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee" (Isaiah lx. 2). " The Day-Spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (Luke i. 79).
The Lord comes to every age in the form adapted to its nature or state. He came in the flesh at the end of the Jewish age because people had fallen so low that He could not reach them in any other way. He had come before in the form of an angel, and " by the mouth of His holy prophets." He did not come in the flesh before because every age must complete its circuit, and reach its end according to the laws of the Divine order. The principles which constitute one age cannot be blended with another. Good people have often wondered why "the Lord delayed His coming" so long, why He did not nip sin in its bud. If He had done it, the same temptations and the same tendency to yield to them would have remained. The problems of human life must be worked out by human experience. As in the material world, there must be a descent from the highest forms of matter to the lowest, before there could be a firm basis for a creation of the higher degrees of organic and spiritual life; so people must sink to the lowest, after their descent began, before their fall could be arrested, and they could be raised to the highest.
As we have already said, the Jewish age was the lowest to which man could descend and retain any vestige of humanity. It is essential to a clear and rational knowledge of the Second Coming that we should get as distinct an idea as possible of the essential nature of the Jewish world, that we may see how the Christian age differed from it.
1. It was a purely natural age. It is maintained by many whose opinions are entitled to respect, that the Jew had no idea of a spiritual world and a distinctly spiritual life. Whatever words the Jew might use in speaking of God and worshipping Him, he or she attached to them only natural ideas. God was a king, differing from other kings only by being more powerful and terrible; and the ground of the regard of the Jewish people for Him consisted mainly in the fact that they thought Him to be more powerful than the gods of the heathen, and that He would some time come to Jerusalem, occupy the throne of David, and raise them to the pinnacle of earthly power and glory. There is no evidence that they had any love for Him as a Being of infinite goodness. They delighted to think that they had the most powerful God, and that they were His special favorites. They praised Him quite as much for what they believed to be His implacable hatred to their enemies, as for any excellencies of character He might possess. Their ideal of a God was a being who regarded them with a personal affection, who had the power and the purpose to make them the rulers of the earth, and all other nations their servants. In their prosperity they swelled with pride at the thought that they were the special favorites of a King mightier than all the rulers of the earth; and in their adversity they cringed and fawned, and hoped by servility to regain His favor.
2. Their worship was purely ritualistic, and of the grossest form. It is difficult for us to conceive of a state in which such a form of worship is possible. How could a rational being believe that the slaying of beasts and the burning of their flesh would be pleasing to Jehovah? It would only be possible to a people who had gross and sensual ideas of the object of their worship and of the principles of goodness and truth. The Jews had no conception that there was any spiritual significance in the subjects and forms of their sacrifices and the various rituals of their worship. A holy man was one who was punctilious in every form and tittle of their ritual. Purity was freedom from ceremonial uncleanness. Righteousness consisted in a rigid external observance of the law, - keeping the outside of the platter clean. Their highest standard of goodness was an outward, physical conformity to prescribed statutes and laws. They had no conception that it had reference to the internal quality of thought and affection.
3. They had no spiritual idea of true charity or love to the neighbor. Their principle of human comity and brotherhood was "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," - love of friends, hatred of enemies. They were hard, savage, and revengeful toward their enemies; suspicious, cruel, and lustful in their interaction with one another.. So stiff-necked, obdurate, and prone to evil were they, that even the grandest displays of the Divine power, and the most swift and terrible punishments, did not effectively restrain them from neglecting the external observances of their religion, from lapsing into idolatry and the grossest sins. Few in number, and occupying a mere speck of the earth's surface, they thought themselves superior to all other people, and treated them with supreme scorn and contempt. The nations or heathen were dogs, in their estimation, with whom it was a disgrace to associate, and whose contact, even, was contamination.
But no merely human mind can paint the character of that age in colors as vivid and terrible as our Lord Himself has done. It was from corrupt sources. " Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do." It was a "generation of vipers." The Jews were favored above all other people by special and repeated revelations of Divine truth, and yet, instead of profiting by them, "they made the Word of God of none effect through their traditions." Their innate and radical hostility to spiritual and Divine truth is demonstrated to the life by their cruel treatment of the men who were sent to warn, instruct, and save them. "They killed the prophets and stoned them who were sent unto them." So blind were they to all consciousness of spiritual truth, so deaf to all warning against danger and to all calls to a pure spiritual life, so dead to all heavenly influences, that they scorned, rejected, and crucified the Lord, who came to redeem and save them. It is impossible to conceive of any greater destitution of moral excellence, or any blacker crime than this. It was the culmination of wickedness, for it was the foulest deed committed in the blaze of the clearest light.
This age came to an end, essentially, when the Lord was in the world. "Now," He says, "is the judgment of this world," of this order or state of life, "now shall the prince of this world be cast out." Its ritualistic worship was abandoned, its ceremonial laws were abolished, its temple was overthrown, the existence of its civil government became extinct, and its people were scattered to the four winds. History supplies us with no example of a more complete and terrible consummation.
The Christian age, which succeeded this, was a grand step upward. It was a new world of thought and affection. It had its seminal principles, which gave special form to its conceptions of truth, to its methods of reasoning, and which determined its conclusions. It was animated with new and purer affections, and the men of the age became the embodiment of a new and a higher life. The central principle of every age is the conception of God which prevails in it. This truth enters as a qualifying influence into the understanding and the affections, contracts or enlarges, debases or exalts them. It gives light and power; it is the centre of attraction, and lifts man up from the earth and from the degrading influences of a sensual life.
1. The Christian age had an entirely new idea of God. It took a distinct step from the natural to the spiritual plane of thought. God was no longer regarded solely as a civil ruler, differing from Pharaoh, Caesar, and David only in the extent of His wisdom and power. He was a spiritual and a Divine Being; and although the conceptions of the nature of the spiritual and the Divine were vague and imperfect, still it was an advance into a new world. There was a new view of His mode of existence. The God of the new age was not limited by time and space. Though concealed from the senses of men, He was present to their spirits; He came nearer to their thoughts and affections, and by the influences of His spirit operated more powerfully upon the higher planes of their being. They also had a more humane conception of His character. Justice was tempered with mercy, truth was warmed with love.
This new knowledge of the Divine person and character gave to people new ideas of the nature and forms of worship. They learned that "God is a spirit," and it followed as a natural consequence that "they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth." With such an idea of God, sacrificial worship became impossible. The old must pass away, it had become obsolete. The fires went out on the altars, for they had served their use and they must give place to that which they had represented. The altars of stone were changed into truth and love, and transferred to the understanding and the heart. The burnt sacrifices of animals became the consecration of the affections; incense ascended as heavenly desires in the form of prayer; and scrupulous ritualistic observances were transfigured into devotion to the principles of a moral and a spiritual life. Every person who received these principles became a temple grander than Solomon's, in whose "Holy of Holies" dwelt the spirit of God, and whose inner and outer courts embraced all the principles and forms of human thought and affection, represented by the complicated and cumbersome rituals of the old symbolic forms of worship. God became a new being to the Christian, and worship, lifted out of the blood and smoke and repulsive forms of slain beasts, the exercise of spiritual affection guided by heavenly truths.
2. In this new world of thought and life people had higher and more enlarged ideas of their relations to one another. The Lord had given them a new commandment, that they should love one another. They gradually rose out of the narrow and selfish limits of the Jewish world, to the conception of the universal brotherhood of humankind. It was a difficult and painful step for the apostles to take, though they had been taught by the Lord Himself. It showed how inveterate were their prejudices, and how contracted were their ideas of the Divine goodness and mercy. The boundary-lines of country and race, which had separated the Jew from all other people as with a wall of brass, were gradually extended until they embraced the whole of humanity. The mind was elevated from the natural to the spiritual. "He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter" (Romans ii. 29). The law of the Jewish age, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," was succeeded by the commandment, "Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away." The principle which had been a rule of action in the former age, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy," gave place to the broad and heavenly principle embodied in the words, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."
The sermon on the Mount embodied the seminal principles of the new age. It reversed the ideas of the world which had passed away, upon all human relations, and the very nature of the elements which constitute a pure, noble, and distinctly human character.
It was the creation of a new world, in which men would be illuminated by a new sun of truth, animated by new and more elevated affections, and reach richer and more blessed attainments. Every faculty of the human mind was quickened by its influence to a larger and a more excellent development. Human society was elevated, knowledge upon all subjects was diffused, new arts sprung up under the quickening influences of the higher life. In every respect it was a larger, a brighter, and a more excellent world than the one which it displaced. It was a grand step upward from the lowest deep to which man had sunk on his return to the Father's house.
These are the worlds of whose creation and end our Lord speaks in His Word. They are ages, or distinct and special degrees, forms, and qualities of spiritual truth, which had their rise, culmination, and end. They were larger and more excellent and worthier of the name of world than any material earth, and more diverse in all the qualities which belonged to them. Each one was full-orbed and complete in itself. At His personal Advent the Lord instituted a new age: He created a new world of thought and life by the truths He revealed to the human race, and the more potent spiritual influences He brought to bear upon them. This is the world whose end He predicted, and to which He promised to come. This is the world which is the subject of the signs which herald and attest His presence. We must, therefore, place ourselves in this world to watch for His appearing.